One of college basketball’s best qualities is its unpredictably — a trait that manifests itself most prominently during the NCAA Tournament. However, it’s also a virtue of the sport that’s on display months before March Madness starts coming together in the form of surprise players who bust onto the scene to exceed expectations and lift their programs.
The constant fluctuation of college basketball rosters are a breeding ground for such stories. For every famed one-and-done freshman, there are dozens more who grind their way to prominence without the hype of a five-star prospect ranking. Just take Luka Garza at Iowa last year or Ron Harper at Rutgers, for example. Both were fine players in the 2018-19 season but neither cracked our list of the sports’s top 101 players before last season. But after huge 2019-20 seasons, they are now among the nation’s elite.
So who are the top surprise players in the sport so far this season — the players who were snubbed from the list of 101 this year but have proven they might belong there now? Our team of writers makes note of their favorites in this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff.
I had Kansas in the top 10 of the preseason Top 25 And 1 for lots of different reasons — among them the presence of Hall of Fame coach Bill Self, the returns of Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji as well as the arrival of five-star freshman Bryce Thompson. The ranking had almost nothing to do with Jalen Wilson, which underlines just how much of a breakout star the redshirt freshman has become.
Wilson, who was ranked 53rd in the Class of 2019, played just two minutes last season before he was sidelined by a fractured left ankle. When we did our list of the Top 101 players in college basketball this preseason, not only was he not included but his name literally never even came up for discussion. Now the 6-foot-8 forward is leading Kansas in points per game (15.2) and rebounds per game (7.8) while shooting 49.1% from the field and 37.3% from 3-point range. He is statistically the Jayhawks’ best player, an All-American candidate and a possible future Big 12 Player of the Year. — Gary Parrish
I’m going to go with one of the unheralded studs through the first seven weeks of the season in Wichita State’s Tyson Etienne. The Shockers entered the season with plenty of uncertainty after Gregg Marshall expectedly resigned after allegations surfaced about his mistreatment and physical abuse of players and staff earlier this decade. Under Isaac Brown, Wichita State is off to a 6-2 start with three road wins and faces maybe its toughest test of the season on Wednesday — a road game against ranked Houston.
To this point, Etienne’s been as valuable and reliable as any player in the American Athletic Conference. He’s coming off a career-best 29 points in Wichita State’s win at Ole Miss. He’s fourth in AAC scoring (17.0) and 3-point accuracy (37.3%). He’s also averaging 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. All-American? No. But he’s been an alpha when the team needed it. I won’t project Wichita State to win at Houston, but if it did, the Shockers would get to 7-2 and move into the conversations as one of the more interesting stories in the sport as January’s conference season starts to pick up steam. — Matt Norlander
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Cameron Thomas, LSU
LSU entered the season as a dark-horse SEC contender because it returned Trendon Watford, Darius Days and JaVonte Smart. But as of last week, when it opened SEC play, it did so as a dark-horse SEC contender in large part because of the arrival of five-star freshman Cameron Thomas.
Thomas has been a revelation for the Tigers as one of the most impactful freshmen in all of college basketball. He’s averaging an SEC-leading 24.6 points per game on the year and already emerged as the Tigers’ top shot-taker and shot-maker despite the wealth of talent surrounding him. In the process, he’s launched himself squarely onto the one-and-done radar because of his ability to create and make shots from anywhere on the court. — Kyle Boone
Minnesota already has more wins over ranked opponents than it did last season, thanks in part to the surprising play of Liam Robbins. The Drake transfer entered with the unenviable task of helping to replace the ultra-productive Daniel Oturu at center, and has done a fantastic job so far. While it was always expected that Robbins would start and be productive, it was a stretch to assume the 14.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game he averaged in the Missouri Valley Conference last season would translate immediately to the nation’s toughest league. But in the four Big Ten games he’d played entering Wednesday night’s showdown with Michigan, Robbins was averaging 18.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game while making 51.1% of his shots and 76.5% of his free throws.
It’s just the latest chapter in Robbins’ improbable rise from being an overlooked, out-of-shape prospect. That rise included a season spent at prep school and a freshman season spent as a role player at Drake, followed by a breakout sophomore season that coincided with his physical transformation. Then came the decision to transfer to Minnesota, where his uncle is an assistant coach. With Minnesota at 10-2 and Robbins the reigning Big Ten player of the week, it appears the relationship is working out wonderfully for both sides. — David Cobb